I-Team: Arlington Heights knew some employees were pocketing speeding fines

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ohio - Hundreds of thousands of dollars in speeding fines are missing in a tiny suburban village, according to several sources close to an unreleased audit and ongoing criminal investigation.

Arlington Heights has been featured in national publications as a notorious speed trap. The mayor's court in the village handles 20 times the number of cases as the average Ohio community (by population).

It's known as "the village between the lanes" because the fewer than 900 residents of Arlington Heights live entirely between the northbound and southbound lanes of I-75.

The Arlington Heights Police Department patrols a village of just a third of a square mile, but the department employs several officers who can be seen daily running radar on I-75 and the heavily-traveled Galbraith Road.

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Thousands of drivers are caught each year, and the village depends on substantial fines to balance its budget.

But where does that money end up?

The Ohio Auditor of State tried to find out a year ago, but the village, "did not maintain a complete database of all tickets issued or all receipts issued," according to the audit.

The routine 2011 audit, "identified significant undistributed monies," in the Arlington Heights Mayor's Court, and auditors were, "unable to determine if an amount collected on a specific case or ticket was, in fact, deposited." (Read the audit at www.auditor.state.oh.us/auditsearch/Reports/2011/Village_of_Arlington_Heights_09_08-Hamilton.pdf)

Auditor David Yost's office also found, "certain cases where there were no tickets maintained by the court and where no information was recorded in the accounting system for a ticket that was located in the court files."

Municipalities are required to pay the state a portion of all fines for victim-relief funds and other state programs, but even with many records missing, the Ohio Auditor found that Arlington Heights had failed to pay the state $40,654 over a two-year period.

Following the discovery of missing money in the routine audit, a special audit of the mayor's court was commissioned more than a year ago. That audit is done, but it has not been released.

"Why is there no cash? People are paying citations in cash. Why is there no cash?" asked Mark Groteke, the former police chief in Arlington Heights.

Groteke first began to suspect two employees of the village were taking cash from traffic fines 10 years ago.

The former chief says he and his officers were responsible for making bank deposits for the mayor's court, and the money bags would contain checks and money orders, but rarely cash.

"They were stealing money," Groteke said, referring to specific village employees we're not naming at this time. "We knew it -- there was discussion among the police officers -- we knew that they were stealing money."

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters confirms "someone was stealing money," and he told 9 News he expects charges to be filed. The prosecutor told us he plans to bring the case to the grand jury by the end of the month.

The prosecutor's office is in possession of the recently-completed special audit. The Ohio Auditor is waiting for word from the prosecutor before releasing the special audit, but multiple sources told 9 News that auditors discovered $262,000 missing from the Arlington Heights Mayor's Court over a 30-month period ending in 2009.

"The one thing that I discovered was there's no daily, weekly, monthly reconciliation," said former chief Groteke. "There was no reconciliation of the citations that came in, versus the cash that was deposited, versus the checks that were deposited."

Groteke said when he was police chief, he and his officers would arrest people on warrants for not paying their tickets, but a few times the suspects informed officers they had already paid their citations in cash.

In September 2002, the police chief put his suspicions in a letter to the mayor at the time, and he copied the letter to Steve Surber, the village's elected clerk treasurer. View that letter at http://media2.wcpo.com/pdfs/2002LettertoMayor.pdf.

The decade-old letter shows Groteke warned the village government of, "the possibility that citations may have been improperly handled," and he called for, "an outside independent agency," to conduct, "a complete audit of all tickets written," according to the letter obtained by 9 News.

Dissatisfied with what he saw as the village's lack of action, Groteke said he took the case directly to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

"BCI told me I could not initiate the investigation, that I had to have support from the mayor or the clerk treasurer," Groteke said. But the village leadership refused to file the complaint.

"Somebody's stealing your money," Groteke said he told the village leadership, "and they don't do anything about it?"

Groteke resigned as police chief and ran for mayor of Arlington Heights.

"I would run for mayor and I would clean it up," Groteke said. "Well that backfired. I didn't win."

His replacement as police chief, Rob Lawson, told 9 News he began to develop the same suspicions about missing money. In 2007 -- five years after Groteke's letter -- Chief Lawson sent emails to the same clerk treasurer, Steve Surber, writing, "just a quick review of the MUTT (Multi-count Uniform Traffic Ticket) book, your numbers don't add up." View that letter at http://media2.wcpo.com/pdfs/2007lettertoSurber2.pdf.

Chief Lawson went on to report that he found "inaccuracy in the numbers," and in a second email he told Surber, "we need to sit down and have a meeting over this mayor's court issue."

Soon after those emails, Surber was elected mayor of Arlington Heights, and the village did away with the elected clerk treasurer position. The mayor now appoints a fiscal officer who reports directly to him.

Mayor Surber has so far denied our requests to examine certain public records, and he has refused our multiple requests for an on-camera interview.

So we tracked him down on the street. (View the entire interview in its raw form in the player above.)

We asked the mayor when he first learned about questions of impropriety in the mayor's court. He replied, "February 2010, about there, maybe sooner."

We showed the mayor the 2002 letter from former-chief Groteke. Surber acknowledged it was his name at the bottom of the letter, indicating he had received a copy.

"Did you see this letter?" we asked. "Yes I have," Surber answered.

"So the first you learned of this was not 2010, but 2002?" we asked. "When I was a fiscal officer," the mayor answered.

Mayor Surber insisted he had no power to call for an investigation when he was the elected clerk treasurer.

His former police chief disagreed. "You're the clerk treasurer -- the treasurer, the one who handles the money, the one who is responsible for the money -- absolutely it's his responsibility," Groteke said.

Surber eventually called for a special audit -- not in 2002 or 2007, but last year -- after the initial audit findings and after police chief Rob Lawson had also contacted BCI. The mayor's court now uses a computerized system designed to reduce fraud.

In the intervening years, Arlington Heights was forced to disband its fire department because of a budget shortfall.

This is the first of a series of reports and an ongoing I-Team investigation. Tips should be directed to bkeefe@wcpo.com

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